Taking Music Lessons Early In Life Leads To Strong Brain Connections
February 13, 2013

Taking Music Lessons Early In Life Leads To Strong Brain Connections

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Getting your child involved in a music program from an early age can help them develop stronger connections in their brain, according to a new study.

Researchers reported in the Journal of Neuroscience children who start taking music lessons, such as a learning a recorder in kindergarten, before the age of seven have helped create stronger connections within the brain.

The new study suggests musical training before this age has a significant effect on the development of the motor regions of the brain, which is the part that helps plan and carry out movements.

Not only does the study help provide evidence for a benefit to a child learning music at a young age, but also that the years between six and eight are "sensitive periods" when musical training interacts with normal brain development, producing long-lasting changes in motor skills and brain structure.

“Learning to play an instrument requires coordination between hands and with visual or auditory stimuli,” Concordia University psychology professor Virginia Penhune said in a statement. “Practicing an instrument before age seven likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build.”

For the study, researchers tested 36 adult musicians on a movement task, and scanned their brains. Half of the musicians began musical training before age seven, while the other half started at a later age. The two groups had the same number of years of musical training, and experience, and they were also compared with those who had received little to no formal training.

Those musicians who began before age seven showed more accurate timing, even after two days of practice, when looking at motor skills. After comparing brain structure, the team found musicians who started early showed enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum, which is a bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right motor regions of the brain. Also, the younger a musician started playing music, the greater the connectivity, according to the study.

Brain scans showed no difference between the non-musicians and the musicians who had began learning later on in life, which suggests the brain developments looked at by the team happen either early, or not at all.

The study also suggests the benefits of early music training go beyond just the ability to play an instrument.

“This study is significant in showing that training is more effective at early ages because certain aspects of brain anatomy are more sensitive to changes at those time points,” says co-author, Dr. Zatorre, who is also the co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain Music and Sound Research (BRAMS).

Penhune said it is important to remember early starters have some specific skills and differences in the brain, but these things do not necessarily make them better musicians.

"Musical performance is about skill, but it is also about communication, enthusiasm, style, and many other things that we don't measure," Penhune added. "So, while starting early may help you express your genius, it probably won´t make you a genius.”

RedOrbit was able to talk with a Senior Electroneurodiagnostic Technologist in the Neurology Department at Denver Health about this research.

"In Neuro-Diagnostics, we are able to obtain data collected from an EEG in respect to the brain at rest and a brain engaged in complex reasoning tasks," Gil Solano, who was not involved in the study, told redOrbit. "These thought processes range in anything from mathematical calculations to simple motor movements such as the brains signal to the nerve responsible for simply moving the right thumb (a key component in playing an instrument).

"We gather, from the data represented in a normal EEG, that there is an attenuation of baseline alpha rhythm in the posterior cortex whenever complex thought is evoked," Solano added. "This is the direct correlation of electric activity produced from the neurotransmitter of the brain and motor function."

He continued to say there is a significant difference of maturity in the posterior dominant rhythm of a child than of an adult.

"With that in mind, it is definitely an interesting source to reflect on when analyzing the EEG record of a young musician," said Solano.